NASA hacker Gary McKinnon denied UK trial – CPS refuses to bring charges

Graham Cluley
Graham Cluley
@[email protected]

Crown Prosecution Service
NASA hacker Gary McKinnon is a step closer to extradition to the United States, following a decision by the British Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to refuse to bring charges against him.

42-year-old McKinnon was arrested in 2002 after allegedly hacking into computers belonging to the US Army, US Navy, US Air Force, Department of Defense and NASA. The hacker from North London claims that he broke into the networks only to uncover confidential information about anti-gravity propulsion systems and extraterrestrial technology which he believed the authorities were hiding from the public.

For their part, the US authorities have claimed that McKinnon caused nearly a million dollars worth of damage, shutting down systems responsible for tracking the location of naval ships, and protecting Washington DC.

McKinnon’s many supporters had their hopes raised last month, when it was revealed that McKinnon’s lawyers had informed the CPS that that the hacker would admit to offences under the UK’s Computer Misuse Act. If he had been found guilty and punished in Great Britain, it would have made extradition to the USA unlikely.

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What is particularly fascinating about this case is how members of the regular IT community feel about McKinnon. Indeed, they are showing a perhaps surprising amount of sympathy for his plight.

This is underlined by a poll conducted by Sophos in 2006 found that showed 52% of IT professionals felt he should not be extradited.

A separate survey the following year revealed that less than half believed that jail would be an appropriate punishment for McKinnon if he was found guilty.

According to a report in The Guardian newspaper, Alison Saunders, head of the CPS organised crime division, said that although evidence was found of unauthorised access by McKinnon, “the evidence we have does not come near to reflecting the criminality that is alleged by the American authorities.”

So, in a nutshell, because the CPS couldn’t find sufficient evidence they are declining to prosecute McKinnon. And thus today it was announced that the Crown Prosecution Service had rejected the request for Gary McKinnon be tried by a British court – making extradition even more likely.

This news will come as a blow to McKinnon, his family and friends, who have spent years campaigning for him not to be extradited to the United States.

It looks like McKinnon is sliding relentlessly closer to his unwilling departure via Heathrow Airport. Gary McKinnon’s last hope may have to be that an America under the leadership of Barack Obama will show more sympathy than his predecessor.

My own opinion is that when the really serious cybercriminals are the ones doing it for money, stealing identities and creating botnets, should we really be making such an example of a guy who appears to have been just a UFO conspiracy theory nut? There is a danger that McKinnon is being used as a whipping-boy by a country embarrassed about the poor security of its computers in the days after September 11 2001.

Of course, a strong message has to be sent out to hackers that their activities are unacceptable. But there is clearly a difference between financially-motivated cybercriminals and enthusiastic amateurs like McKinnon doing it for kicks.

* Image source: clockwerx’s Flickr photostream (Creative Commons 2.0)

Graham Cluley is an award-winning keynote speaker who has given presentations around the world about cybersecurity, hackers, and online privacy. A veteran of the computer security industry since the early 1990s, he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows, makes regular media appearances, and is the co-host of the popular "Smashing Security" podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Mastodon, Threads, Bluesky, or drop him an email.

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